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Drunk With Distraction

Smartphones undermine our cognitive capacity; they make us dumb.

Key points

  • We mistakenly believe we can multitask and attend to several tasks at once.
  • Studies have shown that our concentration and cognitive capacity are significantly impaired by smartphones.
  • Being distracted by smartphones even occurs when we are not actively using the devices.
Norma Mortenson, Pexels
Source: Norma Mortenson, Pexels

Have you ever attempted a conversation with someone distracted by their cell phone? Or almost had someone walk right into you with face buried in their phone? Not only is it obvious that they cannot simultaneously do both, but their inability to do so seems lost to them. It’s as if they’re in a trance and can’t see what’s happening. How curious: We are tremendously distracted by ubiquitous technology but seem not to realize the toll it takes on our ability to concentrate, think, and solve solutions. For instance, in defiance of the evidence, almost 80 percent of millennials rate their ability to multitask as somewhere between “moderately well” and “extremely well.” What evidence, you may wonder?

Driving Dumb

Where to begin? Well, let’s just say you shouldn’t read this while driving.

A multitude of research shows that cell phones and driving are a lethal combination. A 2023 meta-analytic review, which statistically aggregated across 67 studies, found that participants who were texting while driving missed lane changes, were slower to brake, had greater speed variability and steering variation per second, and had a higher risk of accidents than those engaging in other in-vehicle tasks. I’m fairly certain this isn’t surprising, as everyone knows that texting while driving is bad, right? Yet, 16 percent of all U.S. drivers professed to texting and driving in 2021 — and those are only the ones willing to admit it.

Texting, of course, isn’t the only way to elevate dopamine while driving. One may watch videos, play games, follow social media, surf the web, check email, and more. A naturalistic study found that 17-22-year-olds touched their smartphone an average of 1.71 times per minute while driving. This may feel safe to them, but the National Safety Council indicates that the chances of an accident occurring once a driver’s eyes are taken off the road increase by a staggering 400 percent. Taking your eyes off the road for 5 seconds at 55 mph is similar to driving more than an entire football field blindfolded. One sounds almost manageable, the other terrifying. We are disconnected from the true threat and think we can pull off multitasking better than others, becoming more confident with positive reinforcement after each incident we survive.

Erik Mclean, Pexels
Erik Mclean, Pexels

Much more common and seemingly much less dangerous is talking while driving. My dad once asked me while we were having a conversation if I was driving. He told me to hang up and call him back later. “But Dad,” I protested, “it’s hands-free and everyone talks while driving, right?” Many of us think this way. Seventy-seven percent of people in one study believed that hands-free was safer than regular talking. Twenty-four states even allow drivers to use cell phones legally provided they are hands-free. But Dad is right and the states are wrong.

In simulators, even those conversing on a hands-free device were delayed in their braking reactions and more likely to have accidents than those not operating cell phones. Hands-free drivers had an increase in traffic violations, had slower reaction times, and were less likely to notice and respond to directional arrows that appeared on the screen. Using a cell phone while driving – whether it’s a hand-held or hands-free device – delays a driver’s reaction time by as much as a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. It’s a socially sanctioned version of driving while intoxicated. Why does this seem so shocking? What does it reveal that many of us do not sense the inherent danger in such behavior?

The Mere Presence of Smartphones Makes Us Dumber

So, it’s probably clear that phones and driving don’t mix. But surely phones can’t be problematic when we’re not behind the wheel? What if you have your phone available, and hear a text or call, but ignore it? Certainly, there’s no harm done? Well, even if you believe you are ignoring the call, you aren’t. Research shows that we use attentional resources in thinking about the message we are ignoring. Our resulting cognitive capacity is diminished. Participants don’t do as well on an attention-demanding task simply from receiving a cell phone notification, even if they don’t attend to the message. The performance deficit was comparable to those seen when users actively engage with their phone.

Yan Krukau, Pexels
Yan Krukau, Pexels

But it gets worse. It turns out that the mere presence of cell phones reduces our ability to think about another task. Researchers gave undergraduates math problems, memory tests, and pattern recognition activities, designed to measure their cognitive capacity and attention. Before beginning the exercises, they were assigned to place their devices nearby and in sight on a desk, nearby and out of sight in their bag or pocket, or in a separate room. Even though all the phones were turned off, the more visible the phone, the worse participants did on the cognitive tasks. In a marvelous display of self-ignorance, virtually none of the participants reported thinking about their phones during the study, and the majority said that the location of their phone did not impact their performance.

So, we could opt out and not carry a phone with us at all. Besides feeling impossible for many people, there’s reason to think this wouldn’t restore our concentration, either. A recent study found that hearing someone else’s cell phone receive a notification distracts our attention and interferes with performance. This suggests that trying to inoculate oneself from cell phone distraction is really difficult; it’s like an anti-concentration toxin permeating the air. In that sense, it reminds me of studies showing that even if a student doesn’t use a device for taking notes in class, their performance will suffer if others do.

But you may be thinking that these studies involve students being tested in laboratory studies, and who really knows how interested or motivated they were? Maybe adults at work or in the real world would have a strong incentive to succeed, and this would mitigate cell phone distraction? Not if new research is any indication. A 2023 Chinese study found that those in the lending industry having more entertainment apps on their phone (social networking, photography and video, entertainment, games, health and fitness, finance, education, tools, and newspapers and magazines) showed inferior investment performance and were more likely to have clients default on their loans.

Although this was a correlational study, and we need to be careful about cause-and-effect conclusions, the authors found evidence for the cell-phone-as-distraction effect in secondary analyses. For example, internet outages reversed the overall effect – with no cellular service, those with more apps perform the same as those with fewer apps. Additionally, the impaired performance was strongest on Fridays, presumably when individuals would most likely be using entertainment-related apps for weekend schedule arrangements, and when internet speeds were higher, presumably because it became easier to stream a video or play a game.

The Bottom Line

We are inundated with cell phones but don’t seem to understand very well the depths to which they distract us. Our ability to concentrate, to think, and to solve problems is undermined by technology to a far greater extent than we realize.


Kaminske, A., Brown, A., Aylward, A., & Haller, M. (2022). Cell phone notifications harm attention: An exploration of the factors that contribute to distraction. European Journal of Educational Research, 11(3), 1487-1494.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41, 893–897.

Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.

Zhang, Y., Du, Y., & Li, Y. (2023). Entertainment apps, limited attention and investment performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 1118797.

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